A decade of disruption for the 2020s

From integrating technology into the shopper experience to new developments in lab-grown meat, covid-19 is accelerating disruptive innovation

There’s no doubt about it, 2020 has been a year where the ground has shifted. If there’s ever been a time when it’s difficult to look beyond the present to the future, it’s now. That said, taking some time to consider what disruptions may take place in the post-COVID-19 world can provide some perspective on how grocery will change in the years to come—and what consumers may come to expect.

Two areas of innovation that will likely be transformative over the next decade relate to the integration of technology into the grocery shopping experience, and a more dramatic shift to eating alternative proteins (including plant-based and lab-grown options) for reasons related to sustainability and availability. COVID-19 will likely accelerate these movements.

How people shop was already being impacted by technology even prior to COVID-19. Amazon Go may be the best example of how technology is becoming more deeply integrated into the shopping experience. The concept’s “Just Walk Out” tech allows shoppers to pick their items and leave the store without ever having to interact with a cashier. With this innovation, Amazon gets to reduce its labour costs and customers save time by limiting interactions with staff, which now also equates to a safer shopping experience. As COVID-19 leads to an increased desire for fewer in-store touchpoints, look for seamless technology such as this to scale up.

Perhaps the biggest shift in shopping behaviour during COVID-19 has been the acceleration of online shopping. Mintel’s findings suggest many of the gains realized during the pandemic will not dissipate, and this is for a couple of reasons. First, shopping online is now more readily available due to recent investments by retailers. These investments will likely lead to more sophisticated platforms that will make online shopping more relevant for consumers. Walmart’s interest, along with Microsoft, in acquiring TikTok—while initially surprising—offers a glimpse of a future where retailers look to further integrate with social media platforms to better identify and meet consumers’ wants and needs. Secondly, with Canada’s population aging, older consumers represent a key demographic for online shopping. COVID-19 has undoubtedly helped expose more boomers and seniors to this space, and accelerated their adoption for reasons related to safety and ease. In short, online shopping is no longer just for younger adults.

The 2020s will also likely see the rise of cell-based meat—meat produced in a way that involves harvesting cells from a living animal and replicating them to grow in a lab. Sounds tantalizing, right? Before you dismiss this outright, consider that the population of the world is nearing eight billion. The planet continues to warm and COVID-19 has resulted in more awareness of zoonotic diseases (diseases which are transmitted from animals), leading to a greater understanding how one’s lifestyle not only has ramifications for the planet on a broad level, but our day-to-day lives as well.

Even though lab-grown meat is still in its infancy and barriers related to technology and cost remain, innovation in this space is progressing at a staggering rate. The development of gene-editing tools such as CRISPR offers the potential to create cell-based meats that are both tastier and healthier by increasing the quality of cell growth. While consumers will need time to adapt, the rise of cell-based meat will surely have profound implications for the broader food industry.

Even as the attention paid to COVID-19 recedes in the coming years, its impact will likely continue to be felt through the innovations it accelerated. It’s impossible to know what the 2020s will bring at this point, but what is certain is that the innovation we’ll see will be truly disruptive.

Joel Gregoire is associate director, Food & Drink at Mintel, the world’s leading market intelligence agency. Based in Toronto, Joel researches and writes reports on Canada’s food and drink industry. @JoelDGregoire